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Congress Enters Last Lap With '96 Election in Mind

Immigration, anti-terrorism, welfare, top 42-day agenda

CAPITOL Hill Republicans are ready to show they're the Do-Something Congress.

After a two-week hiatus - with President Clinton packed off on an overseas tour - Congress is back in the spotlight. For the ruling GOP, the aims are many, and all are intended to score points for the Nov. 5 elections, when the party hopes to recapture the White House and keep control of both houses of Congress.

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For Sen. Bob Dole, the Republicans' presumptive nominee for president, the stakes are especially high. All eyes are on the Senate majority leader, who must show voters that he can indeed make things happen. But he has opted to work on a borrowed vision - the House GOP's Contract With America, elements of which he disagrees with - and it remains to be seen how effective an advocate for the Contract's unfinished business he can be.

The bottom line for Congress is that it faces a packed agenda with only 42 working days between now and the parties' nominating conventions in August. That to-do list includes immigration reform, health-insurance reform, antiterrorism legislation, and reform of the welfare and Medicaid systems.

And don't forget the stalled effort to balance the federal budget. Administration and congressional negotiators may meet today, but neither side expects a breakthrough any time soon. Much of the government is still operating on a stop-gap spending bill that expires April 24, so that issue will come to a head. Congress is also due to take up the fiscal 1997 budget soon.

Other agenda items are mere window-dressing. Include here the House's consideration yesterday of a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority for Congress to approve tax increases. The proposal itself required a two-thirds majority for approval and had no chance of passage.

But as Americans put the final figures on their tax returns, the GOP intended only to highlight the tax issue and create campaign fodder.

On the Senate side, Dole intends to hold a vote this month on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, another maneuver with little chance of success intended for political purposes.

The Democrats are not innocent of the same tactic. Their showcase political issue is the minimum wage, which they argue is at a 40-year low when adjusted for inflation and represents a potent symbol of how the government has failed to help the working poor keep up a minimal standard of living.

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Congressional Democrats and the White House want to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour over two years. The Republicans argue raising the minimum would only hurt people by eliminating jobs. Last month, the wage issue reached the Senate floor but was stalled before it reached a final vote. Only 55 senators out of the 60 needed voted to close off debate and bring it to the floor.

For the Democrats, the minimum-wage issue represents only one of a series of measures they are putting together in a campaign manifesto that will be their answer to the GOP's Contract With America. The theme of the agenda is "economic security," and will include matters such as health care, pension reform (which President Clinton highlighted last week), and financing for education and home-buying.

This weekend, House Democrats will hold a retreat to put the finishing touches on their agenda. The next task will be to consider joining together with Senate Democrats, and the Democratic White House, to issue a party-wide manifesto that Democratic candidates can use for their campaigns.

SOME of the issues Congress considers this week represent serious legislative efforts with a shot at reaching Clinton's desk. They include:

Immigration reform. The bill the Senate took up yesterday now covers mainly illegal immigration, much less controversial than an earlier section that would have reduced legal immigration. There is broad agreement on the need to cut illegal immigration, but differences remain on the question of national identification cards and denial of government benefits to immigrants and their children.

Health-insurance reform. Later this week, the Senate will take up a bill to allow workers to keep their health insurance when they change jobs or become self-employed, even if they or a family member have pre-existing conditions. The Senate version has broad bipartisan support, while the House version contains features many Democrats oppose, such as a provision allowing medical savings accounts.

Antiterrorism legislation. A House-Senate conference is trying to work out a compromise in time to send a bill to Clinton's desk by Friday, the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

But differences remain on a proposal regarding "taggants" - traceable markers on explosives - and on FBI surveillance techniques.

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